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A Poor Man's Tale of a Patent

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Cross-genre i
Prose: Digest; Review i
Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Short Fiction i
Subjects Great Britain—Politics and Government
Great Britain—Social Conditions—Nineteenth Century
Inventors; Inventions
Law; Lawyers; Justice; Courts; Trials
Science; Science—History; Technology; Technological innovations; Discoveries in Science
Social classes; Class distinctions; Aristocracy (Social Class); Aristocracy (Social Class)—Fiction; Middle Class; Working Class; Servants;
Work; Work and Family; Occupations; Professions; Wages
Other Details
Printed : 19/10/1850
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume II
Magazine : No. 30
Office Book Notes
Views : 5587

For the detailed background to this anticipation of the great Circumlocution Office satire in Little Dorrit, see N. Davenport, The United Kingdom Patent System: A Brief History with Bibliography (1979). On pp. 15–17 Davenport, who quotes Dickens, sets out the stages of obtaining a patent in 1850, together with the fees payable at each stage, and notes that 'it normally took six to eight weeks to obtain an English patent by this procedure' at a total cost of £94 17s 0d (= £94.85). This gave protection in England and Wales only; full patenting cost £310 and 'If, as likely, the inventor employed an agent to help him through the maze of procedures, the cost was considerably more.' The Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852 ameliorated the situation by establishing the Patent Office as a single office where all the procedures could be carried out under the control of the Commissioners of Patents. It also considerably reduced the costs (one patent now gave protection for the whole of the UK), though this was offset by the introduction of a new fee payable to keep the patent in force.

An article by the miscellaneous writer and regular HW contributor George Dodd, entitled 'A Room Near Chancery Lane' and published in HW on 21 February 1857 (Vol. XV, pp. 190–2), welcomed the reforms brought about by the 1852 Act, noting, however, that 'it does not sever us from contact with routine and red tape, but it renders [them] less obstructive and annoying than before'. 
      The conception of the inventor Daniel Doyce in Little Dorrit (1855–7) and his ordeal by bureaucracy is clearly related to the following narrative. Humphry House notes (The Dickens World [1960 edn], p. 175) that Doyce's troubles 'were rather out of date when they were published', but of course Dickens sets the action of the novel thirty years before the time of writing.
      The reference to 'Physical force' Chartists in paragraph 5 is to that branch of the Chartist movement associated with Feargus O'Connor, a branch that believed in what we should now call 'direct action' and was one of the greatest bogeys of the early Victorian middle classes. By 1850, however, Chartism was generally on the decline following the fiasco of 1848.

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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DJO Editor: This article was based on proof-sheets of a report by Henry Cole, later published by the Society of Arts in Rights of Inventors (1850). 

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